Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (“Iz”) unwittingly provided future listeners a clue to something deeper at the beginning of his signature song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” Soon after he arrived at the studio–at 4 a.m., possibly high–he sat on a steel chair and said “This one’s for Gabby” before strumming and gifting future generations with his sweet, somewhat haunting “Oooo” intonations.

Gabby here refers to Gabby Pahinui, a childhood friend of Iz and one of the fathers (both as a solo artist and as a founding member of the Sons of Hawai’i) of the Hawaiian Renaissance. The latter movement was most prominently expressed in a new form of Hawaiian music that depended on ancient traditions rather than without the patronizing, sexually suggestive, and even racist overtones embodied by tourist-friendly hapa haole. Israel therefore dedicated the track–to date, the most popular song from Hawaii–to the memory of traditional musicians that most future listeners would have never heard of. “Over the Rainbow” therefore represents the identity of the singer, caught as he was between Hawaiian tradition and commercial, mainstream American music. This identity is fleshed out in “Over the Rainbow” and the other 14 tracks on Facing Future, Israel’s first solo album.

This is not to say that “Over the Rainbow”is  a corruption of tradition. It is, truly, representative of one strain of Hawaiian music and even of the sincere love Hawaiians have for their home. It is also representative of what tourists expect from a visit to Hawaii. Sarah Vowell captured the peacefulness in “Over the Rainbow” well in her book about Hawaii, Unfamiliar Fishes:

“Over the Rainbow” is as sweet and soft as trade winds rustling through palms. It is the perfect song for Hawaiian vacations because the tranquility of its sound captures the feeling tourists flock there to find. Even though it’s a song that is actually about the human inability to be happy where one is, the suspicious that joy is always somewhere else. It is not unlike the hymns the New England missionaries brought to Hawaii, advertisements for heaven, that other elusive elsewhere where troubles melt like lemondrops. The trick of Iz’s tender arrangement of the song is how convincing a case he makes that finally, and for once, You Are Here.

Convincing people that You Are Here is as important to Hawaiian musicians as it is to the tourist board. Wistful songs about Hawaii comprise a large proportion of the Hawaiian music oeuvre. Hawaiians at heart (Iz’s term for people like me) also listen to Hawaiian music to experience that same pseudo-heavenly peacefulness. Israel is not being inauthentic; indeed, the palpable sincerity in his voice accounts for the song’s appeal (well, that and an aggressive marketing/licensing strategy).

An unfortunate byproduct of “Over the Rainbow,” however, is its place as the only Hawaiian song that most people have heard. Dan Kois, in his remarkable 33 1/3 volume about the album Facing Future, laments that most listeners love the one popular track to the exclusion of the other 14 songs alongside it. Facing Future covers the major strains of Hawaiian music then and now: political (“Hawai’i ’78”), Jawaiian (“Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man”), reclaimed hapa haole (“White Sandy Beach of Hawai’i,” “Over the Rainbow”), and traditional (“Ka Huila Wa”). Kois appraises the album better than I ever could:

Israel_Kamakawiwo'ole_Facing_FutureFacing Future is a classic album, but musically it’s a flawed classic. It’s been recast in perpetuity as a masterpiece due to the lightning-in-a-bottle combination of an artist’s untimely death [in 1997, at age 38], a single song’s transcendence, and a label’s licensing know-how. The songs on Facing Future are in some ways beyond criticism, but in other ways they invite it: Gorgeous, sentimental, naive, authentic and ludicrous all at once, Iz’s songs illuminate crucial details about both island culture and the rare embrace of that culture by the American public. If a few of the songs on the album are so flimsy that they can barely survive a close listen, or even support this kind of complex interpretation—well, in some ways, that’s part of the album’s charm. Indeed, the record’s embrace of that flimsiness is part of what makes critiquing it so complicated. And if a few of the songs on the album are so astonishing that they transcend analysis, that just proves that great art can come from anywhere—even from a 700-pound singer, a 110-pound Svengali [producer Jon de Mello], a windswept house high in the mountains [where some of the songs were recorded], a meth-fueled night of partying [when Israel recorded “Over the Rainbow”], and an ‘ukulele.

I would argue (and, I think Kois might as well) that “Over the Rainbow” is one of the flimsier tracks (though not as flimsy as the Jawaiian songs). The flimsiness is especially evident when compared to the transcendental complexity of the album’s opening and closing–both of which are covers of a popular song from his former band the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, “Hawai’i ’78.” Track 1 is the song overlaid with Israel’s reflections on his family history and was the first single on Hawaiian radio (“Over the Rainbow” barely registered until after Israel’s death); track 15 is the song itself. It’s the only truly mournful song on the album:

Cry for the gods, cry for the people
Cry for the land that was taken away
And then yet you’ll find, Hawai’i…

All the fighting that the king had done [Kamehameha I]
To conquer all these islands–now there’s condominiums
How would he feel if he saw Hawai’i nei?
How, would he feel? Would his smile be content, then cry?

The context around the song further informs the contrast between the airy “Over the Rainbow” and the other tracks that have a similar tone. Vowell elucidates the contrast in tone from the standpoint of the mainland listener:

In “Hawaii ’78” [sic], on the other hand, Iz confronts the price of that dreamy little swindle…. Earnest and mournful, as if singing from the bizarro B side of “Over the Rainbow,” in “Hawaii ’78” [sic] he reaches the opposite conclusion: “Our land is in great, great danger now.”

Vowell is right here except where she identifies “Hawai’i ’78” as a B-side. Not only was it the leading single from the album upon its release, the song was a well-loved classic that captured the 1970s political and cultural situation in Hawaii almost perfectly. The protest song was written a couple years before the high point of the Hawaiian Renaissance, when the political activism coalesced in a revised state constitution. The 1978 constitution, among other reforms, returned the Hawaiian language to official status alongside English. (NB: The song’s title and the latter event are coincidence; the song was written a couple years before.) For generations, the territorial government of Hawaii banned the language from schools and tried to fully Americanize the islands. This may have helped smooth the way to statehood, and Hawaiians today are certainly better off than residents of other American territories in the Pacific (e.g., American Samoa, where residents don’t receive full citizenship). The depth of cultural repression, though, nearly destroyed the culture of a people who had already been decimated by foreign disease, unequal trade, and loss of sovereignty.

Israel, singing in 1992-1993, must have been aware of the cultural and political shift that occurred in the year coincidentally referenced in the song’s title. This point contradicts the claim, recorded and expertly refuted in Kois’s book, that Israel meant the song as a generic reflection on loss and longing. That would be like trying to widen the scope of Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning” beyond 9/11. Israel’s version of “Hawai’i ’78” on Facing Future also coincided with the other major political victory for Hawaiian activists: the apology resolution passed by the US Congress and signed by President Clinton, acknowledging that the 1893 overthrow of the island nation’s monarchy was undertaken without democratic consent. Facing Future was as much an encouragement to native Hawaiian activists as it was an easy, pleasant, positive listen for a drive to work in Kailua Kona or Lihue or the concrete jungle of Honolulu.

More than the album’s breadth of focus and political relevance, though, Facing Future is the product of sacrificial love. Israel’s health was always poor from his extreme obesity, and in 1993 he was only four years from death by respiratory failure. Kois describes poignantly how this fact drove the creation of Facing Future:

But Israel didn’t want to leave the Makaha Sons because of artistic differences… No, he wanted to leave because of money. Seventeen years, eleven albums, and thousands of shows into his career with the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau, Israel was on welfare and deep in debt.

He and [wife] Marlene had finally reached some kind of peace in their marriage after his heart attack. “We just both matured,” she says. “We were tired of arguing.” They were living separately, but Marlene came over every day to help care for him. It didn’t take a genius to figure out he might have only a few years left. Israel hoped to somehow provide for his wife and daughter after he was gone.

Robert [Ferrigno, his business manager] was blunt with Israel: Who knew how long he had to live? Their first priority had to be for Israel to record as much as he could, as soon as he could, and for him to own the masters of those recordings.

We often scoff at marketing, and rightfully so, but the care Israel Kamawiwo’ole took in providing for his wife and daughter (and the grandchildren he knew he would never meet) is so inspiring that it amplifies the beauty of the individual tracks on Facing Future. Bruddah Iz’s last acts of aloha look, to me, an awful lot like the ordinary grace that gives us comfort in the face of all we cannot control, whether from our health or the troubles of the world.


Images: Album art from Wikipedia, and the presumptive copyright holder is Mountain Apple Records. The featured image and other image in the post are fan art pieces from the official Israel Kamakawiwo’ole website,